Fellow: Awarded 2010
Field of Study: South Asian Studies
Competition: US & Canada
Linda Hess is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University, and is affiliated with Stanford’s Center for South Asia, which she codirected from 2006 to 2009. Educated at Stanford (B.A., 1964) and the University of California at Berkeley (M.A., 1972, Ph.D., 1980), Ms. Hess teaches on religions of South Asia and has a particular interest in the 15th-century iconoclastic Hindi poet and mystic Kabir. She is renowned for her immersive fieldwork in India that has produced such important studies as The Bijak of Kabir (1983, new ed., 2002) and A Touch of Grace: Songs of Kabir (1994), for both of which she provided translations (with Shukdev Singh) and essays, as well as “Ramlila: the Audience Experience,” first published in 1983, with a revised version in The Life of Hinduism (2006). Much more than a day-by-day recounting of the Ramlila, the annual month-long religious trek and reenactment of the Ramayana that swelled at some points to 100,000 participants, that article was a product of her involvement in four complete Ramlila cycles and innumerable interviews with participants, enriched by her many years’ studies of the languages, literature, religion, history, and politics of India.
Her deep interest in Kabir also led to her being in Bangalore-based filmmaker Shabman Virmani’s feature-length documentary Chalo Hamara Des: Come to My Country—Journeys with Kabir and Friends. This film is one of several produced by the Kabir Project, which Ms. Virmani established in 2003 to “[bring] together the experiences of a series of ongoing journeys in quest of this 15th-century North Indian mystic poet in our contemporary worlds” and “inquire into the spiritual and socio-political resonances of Kabir’s poetry through songs, images and conversations.” Chalo Hamara Des explored how the approaches to and interpretations of Kabir by Ms. Hess and Prahlad Singh Tipanya, a Kabir folksinger and friend of Ms. Hess, were informed by their vastly different cultural backgrounds.
Kabir left no writings; in fact, he was probably illiterate. Because of his towering personality and poetic genius, works with his signature line were soon collected in manuscripts compiled by religious groups such as the Sikhs, the Dadu Panth, and the Kabir Panth (a sect that worships him as a divine avatar). Over the years, the written collections attributed to Kabir have grown. Meanwhile his poetry in oral form has continued to be passed on and performed in many musical styles for 600 years. During her Guggenheim Fellowship term, Ms. Hess intends to finish her book Bodies of Song: Kabir Oral Traditions and Performative Worlds in Northern India, which will explore how the music and performances that have grown up around Kabir’s poems as they have been transmitted through the centuries have shaped each other as well as their performers and audiences.